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Uncomfortable Participating in Virtual Meetings? Here Is Some Advice

By Russell Clayton

TAMPA (May 4, 2020) -- By now most people who are called upon to work remotely in this COVID-19 outbreak have learned the basics of how to accomplish the needed tasks while sitting at a laptop on the kitchen table or on the desk in a home office that up until March may have been seldomly used.

There’s the teleconferencing and endless emails and texts and messages on Microsoft Teams. But for many, there may still be some room for improvement in the finer points of communication in a remote environment.

Here are three best practices for maintaining and improving communication skills during virtual meetings while working from home:

Remember that you're in a meeting

  • Conduct yourself in much the same way you'd act in a face-to-face meeting.
  • Nonverbal communication accounts for more than 55 percent of what you are trying to communicate, so when possible keep the video on, it provides warmth to the conversation.
  • Be mindful of distractions and be attentive during the meeting.
  • You probably don't realize you do it, but you, like many people, may be staring at yourself during a teleconference and that can be a distraction.

Make the meeting interactive

  • Include time for small talk, maybe open the meeting up 10 minutes early to let people trickle in and engage in some socializing unrelated to the business of the meeting. This creates camaraderie and allows attendees to feel a sense of community.
  • Utilize common space for sharing. For example, have a live working Google Doc to keep track of your group conversation or to share your research.

Take care of the technical

  • Be conscious of the background. Some people in the meeting may be distracted looking at the books on the shelf in the background or a painting or photograph on the wall behind you, so it’s important not to sit in front of clutter or a busy background. If possible, find a solid color wall to sit in front of.

Here are some commonly asked questions about communication etiquette in the virtual meeting world:

Q. What would you recommend for virtual dress code?
A. The audience dictates the dress code. When in doubt dress up more than you would when you just lounge around the house. I find that the days when I go through the routine like I'm going to work, (that is, I get out of my pajamas and into real clothes), I'm more productive.

Q. What can I do to show these best practices if I don't have a video in my computer?
A. Focus on voice. Are you slow or fast when you talk? Be more conscious of your voice; listen to what you agree or disagree with in the meeting and speak up.

Q. What tips do you have for leaders who need to have tough conversations virtually?
A. Tough conversations are like breaking up with someone. It’s just better to do it in person. But these conversations are going to happen, whether it involves furloughs, layoffs or not hitting the numbers you needed this quarter because of COVID-19. Being more conscious of your facial expressions can help lessen the blow. Obviously you're not going to tell someone they just lost their job with a big grin on your face because that's creepy, but you don't want to look smug or angry with the person either.

Q. How do you make sure all personality types are engaged in a virtual meeting?
A. Think of a task you can give someone who you know is introverted, like being the time keeper or keeping the agenda in the meeting. A specific task will help draw them out of their introverted shell. On the other side you have extroverts, who are going to want to run the whole conversation. Assigning them a task can be helpful as well. For example, give them a topic you want them to drive home during the meeting. Overall, assigning tasks can take the pressure off everyone.

Q. What is an appropriate length for a virtual meeting?
A. Several research studies say an hour or less is best because focus is lost after that.

Q. Working at home is almost more exhausting. How do you rejuvenate yourself through communication skills?
A. We work hard for bursts, but then we need to take a mental break. Not making a meeting or conversation all business helps by adding in that small talk. Taking the time to physically stand up or stretch also helps.

Russell Clayton is an instructor in the Marketing Department of the Muma College of Business who teaches communication skills.